Part two of The Gazette’s focus on the plight of Fylde’s homeless, sees former Blackpool FC writer STEVE CANAVAN swap the comfy confines of the press box for a jolting reality check on the cold hard streets.
It was a shade past 5am but still pitch black when a man, at least six feet tall and wearing Doc Marten boots, strode towards me.
I was sat in a doorway, sleeping rough.
The man approaching me had eyes like saucers and a look of grim intent. That didn’t worry me, but what he had in his right hand did – a broken beer bottle which he was brandishing like a weapon.
The streets were deserted. My heart was beating fast, my mind racing, trying to think of a way out of the situation but failing.
He got to about 8ft away, then with a sudden movement, hurled the bottle along the street.
“Been walking around all night. Had that to protect myself,” he said. “Do you mind if I join you?”
John, chucked out of the shelter where he was staying for “needing a fag every half hour”, smoked three cigarettes in 10 minutes as he told me he’d been walking round all night. “Been going in circles, just keeping on the move,” he said, eyes moving all the time, as if looking for potential trouble.
At least John was preferable to the visitor I’d had a few minutes before. Huddled in the doorway of a shop, I opened my eyes to find a rat staring at me. It was so close I could have touched it.
At least those two episodes took my mind off the cold. It had been raining all day, my clothes were soaking, and in the chill of the early hours my whole body was shaking.
But I was getting some idea of the sheer utter joylessness of being homeless.
I was here, in this position, sat in Blackpool town centre for two days and nights. The reason – there is a cash crisis facing all Blackpool’s voluntary services which help the homeless. If they fold it could see more people end up on the streets.
‘A 48-hour experiment to see what it was like’ – no big deal, or so I thought. I was wrong. It was horrible,
Dressed in jeans, a couple of T-shirts and jumpers, a coat and a bobble hat, I walked away from the Gazette office. The rain was falling hard and by the time I arrived in the town centre I was soaked to the bone and already cold.
It was tempting to curse my luck about the weather, but this is what people throughout town are living through every day so it was only right that I experienced the worst conditions, just like they have to.
The first thing that struck me was how odd it feels to have nothing to do or nowhere to go, and as a result time drags dreadfully.
While everyone else is heading to meetings, or to meet friends in the pub, or to get home for tea, my day had no point. I was simply passing the hours before I bedded down somewhere and went to sleep.
I walked aimlessly around, seeing things I’d never noticed, like the plaque on the wall of Queen Vera’s Road, which reads: “Named by the traders of Abingdon Street market to commemorate the visit of Miss Vera Greenwood of Whitworth, Rochdale, the reigning British Cotton Queen of 1937.” I’d never seen that before in my life.
The library is a favourite of those on the streets. It is warm. There were several small groups of lads, hair shaved, dressed in tracksuits, that I later learned were homeless.
From what I saw they were no trouble. They weren’t angels but they behaved themselves and when a staff member asked them to move away from the doors when they were smoking, they obliged.
We were all kicked out together as the clock struck seven. The others eyed me a little suspiciously and headed off. My clothes were still damp, yet here I was, back on the wet street and cold again within minutes. I wandered past the sex shops on Cookson Street , then up to the Hilton Hotel, looking in the windows with a tinge of jealousy. Passing time.
On a third lap of the town – I kept moving just to keep warm – I discovered the door of Streetlife, by St John’s church, opposite the front entrance of the Winter Gardens. A strange juxtaposition. In one doorway, the affluent in their fancy clothes off to watch shows and have meals. Fifty yards away, in another doorway, those with no money in their pockets, no food in their bellies, no roof over their heads.
Streetlife is one of two places where homeless people can get a bed for the night. The charity caters for the younger end of what unfortunately is a growing market. It offers help for 16-25 year olds.
Oasis, on Cookson Street, is for those aged 26 and over. They deliberately keep the two age groups separate because they don’t want the youngsters picking up bad habits.
“I don’t want to be sat next to a 45-year-old smackhead dribbling over the table,” as one 18-year-old I spoke to put it.
Over the course of my two nights I visited both the Streetlife and Oasis shelters. One thing is beyond doubt – they do brilliant work.
The staff, many of who are volunteers, giving up their own time free of charge to help those less fortunate, are wonderful.
Despite working in what can often be a depressing and heartbreaking environment, they remain upbeat, positive and dedicated to doing the best they can for the homeless. It made me feel quite ashamed. I donate to several charities each month but that’s easy – actually giving up your own time to help charities like Streetlife and Oasis is another thing altogether. Those people have my admiration.
I got a Pot Noodle from Streetlife. not what I would have opted for had I been at home – steak or salmon most probably – but it was 11pm, I was freezing and it was the first food I’d had that day, so I wasn’t complaining. Hunger and the quest for food becomes an obsession.
Blanket in hand, I sat down for what turned out to be one of the longest nights of my life, for no matter what sterling work these organisations do, being homeless is no fun at all, and sleeping rough is the very last, desperate resort.
I huddled in a doorway for two hours. Three lads, tanked up on lager, wobbled past. “Oi you, yeah you,” shouted one. “You sleeping there? Bloody hell, you’re gonna be freezing.” They laughed, and walked on.
I got off lightly. One of the main dangers is drunks. It is not uncommon for late-night revellers to attack a person sleeping rough. Quite why is beyond me. It’s not as if these people don’t have it hard enough already without some boozed up idiot attacking them.
And the night carried on in that vein. Everybody who passed did that classic double take, taking a second look at us as if to confirm ‘yeah, he really is on the street’.
I felt a mixture of emotions –shame, sadness, boredom, pity for others in the same situation – but mainly cold. I was still wet and the rain was still falling heavy but I figured being on the move might keep me warm. I slumped in another doorway but couldn’t sleep.
My brain was as numb as the rest of me. I felt hopeless. I could cope because I knew that I’d be back in my house and bed by the end of the week. God knows how those who live this way of life permanently maintain the will to go on.
It began getting light sometime around 6am. Body stiff from a night on the hard pavement, I struggled on to my feet like a particularly frail pensioner and headed out to find a cup of tea.
There was one other person in the cafe, a man in his 50s, wearing glasses, with mousy blond hair. He had a plastic bag and a small holdall with him.
I asked if he’d spent the night on the street. He answered defensively ‘no, got my own place me’. Probably a lie, homeless people are as proud as the rest of us and don’t want people to know they haven’t got a home.
Out of the window I could see various figures emerging from the public toilets near the Prom. These are the 20p hotels. Rough sleepers get a blanket, pay 20p last thing at night to go in the toilet, and stay there till they get kicked out by the cleaners at seven the next morning.
I spoke to one lad who did that on a regular basis, “it stinks and it is horrible, but it’s better than being in the rain, out on the open, where you could get your head kicked in by anyone.”
The next 24 hours were the same, except worse. Same emptiness, same pointlessness, same mix of characters that you don’t actually see unless you look for them.
There are thousands of people walking around Blackpool every day. It is only when you sit and watch you recognise the people with nowhere to go.
The Council estimates there are 1,200 homeless people in the resort.
The vast majority are the hidden homeless, those who sleep on the sofa of a mate or a relative.
But there are those very visible to the public eye.
Homeless people don’t beg. Begging is the last resort. In fact, the homeless take great pride in their appearance.
They are so image-conscious, so eager to avoid being picked out as a homeless person, they won’t even use cardboard to sleep on.
In short, they are just like you and me – they have pride. They don’t want to be in the position they’re in, and who can blame them?
I did an experiment in the afternoon, sitting outside Topshop with an empty cup in front of me. I stayed there for more than half an hour. No one gave any money. Nobody stopped.
The night was long but mercifully dry. It followed the same pattern as the first. So uncomfortable, so cold, and so wary about being attacked, it is almost impossible to sleep. I reckon I got about an hour each night – two hours in 48.
It made me realise why a lot of rough sleepers drink. A few cans of lager to numb the mind and knock me out would have been perfect.
When the end finally came – at noon on Thursday – I staggered back to my own house, mind in bits, and slept for seven hours straight
I had just a small taster of what it is like to live on the streets and it was bitterly tough.
There are people out there tonight, and tomorrow, and there will be for years to come.
Thank your lucky stars you aren’t one of them, but don’t close your eyes to the problem. Unfortunately it is very real.
IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO STOP AND THINK
I have a whole new understanding and admiration for those who find themselves, for whatever reason, on the street.
Homelessness. . . I knew it was out there but never stopped to wonder why it happened and what system is in place to help these unfortunate souls.
And let me make it clear that many of them are unfortunate.
The stereotype of a unkempt drugged up drunk, begging on a street corner is about as accurate as the notion that all Scots are called Jock and wear tartan.
The people I met and spoke to were mostly good people in bad circumstances. Many were out on the streets not because of what they’d done but because they had abusive parents and had run away, or they’d been thrown out because mum had a new partner who – as unthinkable as it sounds – suddenly didn’t want her kid around.
I didn’t know any of this before I hit the streets. I felt sorry for anyone homeless, sure, but I didn’t wonder where they might get their next meal from or where exactly they’d be sleeping that night.
It wasn’t really my problem and anyway I had enough to think about. The car needed an MOT, the boiler was playing up, I had nothing in for tea.
In other words, like most folk, I suppose I didn’t really care.
Now I do. A changed man might be taking it a bit far but after witnessing what I have in the past week, met the people I have, had a brief snapshot of their lives, it would be impossible not to pause and think.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
To donate to the work done by Streetlife visit the website www.streetlife-blackpool.co.uk and click on the red circle ‘donate now’. There is a step-by-step guide to giving money.
To support the Bridge Project get in touch with project leader Beverley Taylor on (01253) 299835.
CLICK HERE TO READ OUR PREVIOUS ARTICLES ON THE HOMELESS OF BLACKPOOL